Updated: Dec 7, 2021
“Why?” I was taken aback when a colleague, hearing of my immanent departure to India, threw the question at me. Does one need a reason to climb in the Himalayas, experience the sacred sites, spend time in reflection and contemplation in what is arguably the most holy place on earth? Isn't a long trip to an exotic place self-evident?
Apparently not. My friends asked what I would do in India, what I hoped to find there. But how does one explain going home? So I outline the cities I will visit, going into detail about the height of the mountains at our trekking point, the distance from the Ganges River to the ashram where I will stay, the people I hope to interview. I leave out the fact that I really want to go to India to be with my Master and just be. How can I tell my business acquaintances that I am going to India to get back in touch with my soul?
My dear friend Frederick Franck wrote in Fingers Pointing Toward the Sacred, that “all wandering, every pilgrimage, is a safari that leads through the jungles of our darkest interior. It is the interior that calls us, pilgrims, on pilgrimage. The others go on cruises, on trips.” What would he make of this continuing saga of pilgrimage? I have been wandering in my interior jungle for years, but it is the darkest interior that I still seek, knowing that the safari master waits for me there, in India.
Spiders and Saints
The spider crept out from beneath the beige wall panel and stealthily made its way along the plastic hatch, down the metal handle, across the edge of the video screen and into the dark brown loops of carpet against the lower wall. It dragged its sticky thread behind it, although the little gust of air current from the overhead spigot made it flutter a bit. I had never seen a spider on a plane before, especially not on a 747 transcontinental jet already humming its way out over the Atlantic. Did it arrive hidden in someone’s luggage? Did it enter with the cleaning supplies of the pre-boarding maintenance crew? Did it live here or was this its first trip? My initial reaction was to cringe away from the small black arachnid, stomp down on it when it reached the floor, or point it out to someone in authority who would do the honors for me. But there was something mysterious about this one, something especially fascinating about a stowaway spider on pilgrimage, a tiny bit of nature in the midst of the overwhelming technological creation in which I sat, being airborne halfway around the world; it was a private joke to share with no one else, my little secret.
Spiders and other insects have always caught my attention. Lying in the weeds of the corner lot next to our Chicago bungalow at age five, I watched the slow, seemingly laborious progress of a daddy long legs. I wanted to know where the mommy long legs was and whether the children had short legs. I tried to catch it in my hands, finding out that these spider cousins were very swift indeed when pursued. I was amazed that one could walk across my arm with almost no weight, the slight tickle of its steps the only clue to its passing. When I squashed one between two rocks, it was a wonder the way its legs continued to twitch and jump even though it was obviously dead.
When did my fascination with spiders turn to fear? Was it when I graduated from childhood chores to a serious cleaning (Make sure you get in the corners!), or when, as a young nun, my job as sacristan included dislodging spider webs behind cabinets in the convent cellar storage rooms? Or was it no more than the lines of Little Miss Muffet we all learned by heart? Over the years my fear grew to alarming proportions, so that being surprised by a big spider crawling out from under the sink in my first apartment in Evanston sent me reeling, falling backwards, my heart beating wildly, calling out to my new husband to take care of it for me. Then, years later, the great yogi, Swami Rama, watched as I pulled cooking utensils out of the cabinet to make his dinner. With a bang the iron pans slipped to the ground, dislodging a spider sleeping in the dark corner. I jumped with a yell; the spider ran under the stove; Swamiji laughed.
“God is like a spider, you know Tessa,” he said. “The scriptures say, Just as a spider releases and reels in its web. . . so does the universe emerge from and become reabsorbed into the indestructible, absolute Truth.” He helped pick up the pans, laughing and hugging me. “Everything will pass,” he said. “God is a spider and all is change—creation and destruction, creation and destruction.”
My thoughts are interrupted by the announcement of the captain, pointing out the huge map directly in front of me showing our progress through space and time. There were statistics of our speed, miles covered, local time, time at the place we left, time to destination, miles to go. Travel by numbers: so many numbers from departure; so many numbers to get us there. It feels like the life I am escaping, filled to the top with numbers—numbers to spend, numbers to make, numbers to borrow, numbers of pages, numbers of books sold, numbers of catalogs to be printed. I mentally push the clear button on life’s calculator and turn to my neighbor.
I travel next to a charming Indian man. Deolal is on his first trip to India where, in three days, he will be married. His marriage was arranged and he has not met his bride. I ask if they ever spoke on the phone. “On yes! Twenty-two hundred dollars’ worth! I’m not worried at all, not worried at all,” he assured me, as my mind says, “methinks he protesteth too much.” A young man from Trinidad, he now made his home in Buffalo, New York. He spoke full of bravado, excitement, wonder about the changes to come in his life.
I wonder about mine. What is waiting for me on this pilgrimage in India? What will I find different after nine years? I close my eyes for a while, tired and wanting to be alone. The day should have been over. I had already flown from St. Paul, Minnesota to New York and struggled through the rush hour traffic from LaGuardia to JFK. The bus driver, a big, friendly Black man from Maryland, was full of stories, editorial comment on the economy, the price of cars, modern music, architecture, food, the best vacation cities, and occasional profanity as he lay on the horn. I liked him instantly. He loved New York and welcomed everyone who came into his bus with a loud outpouring of encouragement, wrapping them in safety and laughter.
With a loud crackle the PA system announces that dinner is being served and the screen map pops up to show the Eastern United States, the British Isles, and Western Europe. I read the cities listed and am swept into them one by one: the apartment I lived in on New York’s upper East Side, the beautiful gardens I tended near Philadelphia, my third-floor rooms in London’s Holland Park, my favorite places in Amsterdam, the house I lived in near Dublin, my driving accident outside Brussels, the tiny room overlooking the Eiffel Tower in Paris. So much travel, so many years living abroad.
So why was I going again? Why this ache to leave, to struggle through the rigors of this long journey and arrive back where I started? Will I then, as promised by T. S. Eliot, “know the place for the first time”? What will I see in the holy, ancient land of saints? What strands of intrigue is the divine spider spinning for me even as I rush through the clouds to its web?
The airport in Zurich is clean and impersonal as we deplane and wait for the next flight. Around us is cold, arrogant, smooth order. I pass through security and ask the attendant about a washroom. She pulls me aside, whispering, “Go down this hallway to a room at the left” nodding sympathetically and patting my shoulder. I wonder at the secretiveness and realize I must look what I am: a weary traveler, enroute since noon on Thursday, with no sleep nor bath nor clean clothes for the past 18 hours turned out in one of the cleanest cities on earth.
While we were flying, strange things were happening in India. A man in New Delhi dreamed that Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed popular deity, wanted to drink some milk. So upon awakening, the man ran to the nearest temple, aroused the pandit, and offered a spoon of milk to the small stone image. The men were astonished to see that the milk instantly disappeared. They offered another spoon of milk and watched it disappear from the spoon also.
News of this event spread like wildfire through New Delhi and then across India. People phoned relatives and very soon millions of people around the world were offering spoons of milk to statues of Ganesh. In New Delhi, more than a million liters of milk sold out within a few hours, and gallons were offered and “drunk” by statues in temples in Canada, the United States, Trinidad, Italy, England, Dubai, Nepal, Hong Kong, Australia, and Kenya.
London’s Evening Standard ran the frontpage story and milk-drinking statues in every Hindu temple as well as statues of Ganesha in people’s homes. Front page stories then ran in the Hindustan Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times.
Hindu scholars and astrologers said this event was a portent, a supernatural event, with many reasons for its appearance, chief being “harm to commanders of armies” in eight months, aligned with the time of the full eclipse in April.
Guruji was angry at all the reports of miracles and told his staff not to speak of it. One evening, one of my guru brothers, Maheshji, asked Swamiji what was happening. Gurudev answered that it was the result of an advanced yogi doing a serious practice which gave him this particular power. But the yogi was to keep quiet about the new yoga siddhi; this practitioner, however, wanted to try it out and mentally ordered the event to happen around all images of Ganesha.
Six-hundred years ago another practitioner, Jnaneshvara of Maharashtra, became famous when he made a water buffalo recite the Vedas before a group of arrogant priests. And in the 10th century, the saint Nambi Ambar made an image of Lord Ganesha actually eat the offerings placed before it.
After another nine hours of travel time we are met at New Delhi airport—awash in the unmistakable smell of India, a mixture of fresh-poured cement, cow dung, sweat, flowers, urine, dust, and heavily-spiced food—and are garlanded with necklaces of bright orange-gold marigolds. “Welcome to India” and we are smiled onto the tour bus at midnight to sit and watch while dozens of baggage handlers debate over our bags, nodding their heads sagely, pointing here and there, gesturing wildly with flowing arms, and then walking away while a new group of men begin the same process again.
It is hot. I left the 38 F. weather of Minnesota in sweaters and slacks only to arrive in 80 degree high-humid air. What will it be like when the sun comes out? But everything feels strangely like home, like going away to school, or a new job, or marriage, and returning to the house you grew up in—letting the screen door slam behind you, knowing the smells, the chaos of greetings, the dust in the corners, the hugs and smiles of welcome—and feeling perfectly fine. Home again.
An hour and 15 minutes later we are still packing luggage, trying to get the bus PA system to work, dealing with new group members arriving from other planes and hotels. The young pandit who will be our spiritual guide laughs and says, “This is group activity. If nothing breaks down, there will be no fun!” I can only image all the fun we will have in the next six weeks. At last we take off North, picking up speed along the nearly empty highway.
We arrive at 7 A.M. after 14 hours of travel into the city with a sign reading, “Welcome to the City Beautiful! Take care. Take cover.” Men in uniforms carrying rifles seem to be everywhere. All along the highway near the town were women breaking piles of rocks into stone with sledge-hammers. The nearby worker huts had short mud walls, thatched roofs covered with green vines and big yellow flowers. They were living like pixies in the pumpkin patch, I thought.
This is the city where the five Pandava brothers and Lord Krishna came during their twelve years in exile. Later the city was built by them before they disappeared into the Himalayas. This is the city Swamiji wanted me and Justin to live in. As the three of us were making plans, it became the city of war and the military took over. Too close to Kashmir, we were told.
We are garlanded by the hotel staff with marigolds and our foreheads are marked with red powder in a tilak of welcome. We’re ushered into the dining room for breakfast: soft, blond circles of cereal grain ("corn flakes, Madame") topped with steaming hot milk, mashed potatoes fried into a croquette, and bananas. When the hot tea was poured, it seemed a great feast indeed after the long bus trip.
I am assigned a double room with Doris, with whom I breakfasted. She is an energetic German woman living in Miami. About my age, we share many of the same memories of growing up together, and since I lived for so long in Europe, many mutual favorite places. We go to the gardens and see hundreds of bats in the trees, lots of flowers blooming in the heat, “modern” artwork. There is a large pavilion where I go for shade. The squawking makes me look up to find dozens of green parrots peaking at me through the holes in the wooden ceiling. The garden has seven levels, and many bats and vultures in the trees. Several in the group were watching the bats as they flew and landed, measuring the wingspan of one type at 2.5 feet.
The hotel is very good—quite sumptuous, actually, after the poverty we passed on the long bus ride. There we saw men and women sleeping along the highway, wrapped in dirty cloth, shops that were little more than shacks, displaying their meager stores on dusty wooden tables, homes that were nearly dilapidated, their wooden sides broken, their roofs made of hammered-out oil drums held down with rocks. Here everything was neat, clean, in order, supervised by a rather grand woman in a silver and blue sari, her jet-black hair wrung piteously into a severe, no-nonsense bun. Filled with her own importance, she superciliously called out orders, pointed to places that needed cleaning, demanded a plant be moved, a rug vacuumed, a floor scrubbed. Her staff, all much smaller, bowed and ran to comply to her every wish.
Later I found her outside, pointing out scuff marks on the wide marble entryway. Two young men, squatting with little yellow scrubbers and small pitchers of soapy water, scrubbed at the spots she pointed out, and then, in broad sweeping motions, soaped up the large marble square before moving to the next one. A companion cleaner followed, wiping up the soap with a white cloth and squeezing it into another bucket. It was so odd seeing this done in such a position—butt down to the ankles, knees up to the chin—that I thought, “It must be so uncomfortable. Why don’t they get equipment with handles?” It was then that I noticed the hands of the young man squatting very near me. They were exquisite: skin smooth and clear, the color of hazelnut shells, fingers long, tapered, graceful, crowned with shining trimmed nails. They moved in delicate circles of soap bubbles, then swept in arches of foam across the white marble. In another land, in other circumstances, he would have been an artist. I could picture those hands molding clay in long, quick strokes, or gliding a paint brush across a vast canvas, or holding a white baton and conducting a tuxedoed orchestra in waves of gorgeous sound. I never really saw his face, called away as I was to the bus in the next few minutes, but the picture of his hands stayed with me for miles.
Years ago I became intrigued with hands, watching the chubby, grasping fingers of babies, the toil-warn hands of my mother, veins protruding, the delicate bones fanning out beneath reddened skin, the strong hands of mechanics twisting and releasing the giant wrench, the clasped hands of old nuns in prayer. I always imagined one could tell the entire life of a person by looking carefully at their hands. Later I learned of palmistry and sat entranced while an old woman traced the lines of my hands and told me all I was and most of what I would become. I remember her insistence that I would travel—far and long, and often.
On the bus, the tour guide, an Indian man, is giving greetings to everyone. When he says hello to me, Pandit Rajmani stops him and says, “Oh, this lady is my American mother! She took care of me when I first arrived in New York, bringing me food, cleaning my room, washing my clothes, ironing them beautifully, keeping everything in order, and then helping me practice my English. Call her mother!”
Another early morning bus departure, again off to the North, through the Punjab into Shimla. Outside the windows the countryside slides by small houses and barns with gray-blue slate roofs, terraced plots of vegetables, grains, and flowers, tall trees: pines, eucalyptus, bale, and dozens I cannot identify. Our huge bus, loaded down with 25 pilgrims and three times as many bags, growls up the steep hills, the proud turbaned Sikh driver taking each turn on the narrow road seemingly wildly. I hold my breath as we come within 6 inches of the terrible drops—no guard rails, no barriers to a drop of a thousand feet. I promise myself that I will not sit near the window next time.
We pass women in the fields cutting grass with scythes for their cows and goats, men gathered around bits of oily machinery on a garage floor, a carpenter shaving fresh wood and sending the fragrance and curls out of his shack to us, children in crisp uniforms walking along the road to school. The contrasts of rich and poor, beauty and squalor are incredible. But almost everyone has a smile, neighbors greeting each other with shouts of greetings and warm hand clasps.
Our deluxe bus rumbles through the town. We are a curiosity, not the typical bus of tourists because we are all foreign, and not the usual truck noise, because ours is a deluxe bus. I am enthralled by the shop signs and the billboards of Shimla: “Kanath Garage—Deals in Spares and Repairs” and “We teach computers like no one else.” and “Ride on Your Mood—#10 Filter Cigarettes” and “Tinny Beauty Salon.” There were the usual dirty garages, cloth merchants, little three-sided shacks hung with packets of tea, tobacco, sweets, gum, cigarettes, trinkets, and piles of produce on flat trays and baskets: purple eggplant, red tomatoes, yellow squash, green spinach and mustard, brown onions, and gingerroot, orange carrots, and many I did not know.
We pass Chicken Corner shop and Sweet Corner shop, neither, of course, on the corner of the street, and leave the city behind. From the window we glimpse mountain peaks and waterfalls and staggering valley views until finally we see a sign for Koti Resorts— “An Adventure in Solitude.” The driver executes a hair-raising U-turn when the road widens a bit (the passengers take an hour to dissipate their looks of shock and fear at the turn and talk of it in whispers over and over all afternoon) to take us right up the mountain road to the door.
High on a plateau at 7,000 feet lay the lodge, with little white flowers surrounding it down the steep hill. It felt so good to get out of the bus walk through the gardens of roses, jasmine, dahlias, marigolds, zinnias, daisies, and thousands of tall, graceful violet cosmos, nodding at our every step. We are greeted at the door and a small mountain cap is placed on each head. Smiles all around and cups of thick guava juice. We look like stunned soldiers lined up in our wool and velvet caps decorated with gold braid, amazed that we were there, snapping pictures of the mountains in a powerful huddle around us. Directly across is the tallest peak in the Shimla area, and if the light is right, one can make out a castle-like building on its very top—the temple of Hanuman. Tomorrow we will go there on pilgrimage.
For now the chores of room assignments, lunch, finding water and bathrooms. Doris and I have Room 407, a loft room with one full-size bed, a small bathroom with toilet, sink, and a pipe coming out of the wall, a large plastic bucket and small blue plastic pitcher. We have two petite cakes of pink soap, and a little packet of shampoo. The label proudly announces, “e types of shampoo for all types of hair: #1 for dry hair, #2 for normal hair, #3 for long, black hair.” I ponder this wisdom, wondering about long brown or blond or red hair and am satisfied that our packet is #2.
I want to wash my hands in the cold, cold water. The soap brand is Prime: The family freshness soap. The ingredients list 50% “oswal fats and oils from New Delhi.” I break out my emergency bar from my suitcase.
The next day some of us go for a trek up the next hill to see the sunset, walking on a 7-inch goat track up to a beautiful pasture. But the sky is overcast and the iridescent ball of light escapes behind the gray clouds. We make our way down the other side, stepping on rocks, caked mud, grasping at bits of bush to keep us steady. In the clearing below us, a large fox bounds out of the thicket we disturb and into another. We come down to the road and find a small stand of corn growing in a yard among the roses. The stone and wood house is roofed in hand-hewn slate, fit together like fish scales. Earlier we had seen stone masons along the road slivering off pieces of slate from large boulders, rending the air with the sharp reports of their chisels as the pile of roofing tiles grew higher.
Dinner is a feast followed by a bonfire in the garden. The flames leap up and remind me of other fires. We tell stories of the yogis and the Vedic dancers. As the fire burns down to a few flames and red-hot coals, the last few melt away and I am left sitting on the grass before the fire pit. I am almost giddy with feelings of joy and remembrances, the overwhelming warmth of belonging in this strange and lovely place, the images of the prodigal returned home—although how I have been prodigal I cannot conceive. At 12:30 I stand up to find my way in the dark to my room. There, 10 feet away is an Indian attendant, showing me where to walk, asking if I need help to my room, wishing me warmly, “Good night, Madame.”
Jakku Temple to Hanuman
Early on Monday morning we board the bus to take us into the town of Shimla. All along the way purple and white morning glories climb the wire fences, red chenille flowers stretch across fields, stands of lavender cosmos wave to us as we drive past. Lush grass, vines, weeds, all in their best, all demanding to be noticed and praised.
Some of the trees are hung with vines already turning red; some trees drop large yellow leaves. What is winter like here? As we drive through the village of wooden houses and shops beneath our hotel I notice here and there little kerosene stoves, occasionally a cement house, but no insulation, no central heating. I am told there will be 4 feet of snow in the winter. What do the people do to keep warm? Already the men wear woolen shawls around their shoulders and hand-knit woolen caps as they stand around the drums of fire sipping steaming cups of tea.
In the center of Shimla I step off the bus into a mass of humanity. The city is full, bustling with life in the bright sunshine. With great effort we pass through the fruit and vegetable vendors selling their wares from baskets on their heads and cloths spread on the road; bullock carts filled with piles of wooden furniture, clothing, bedding, piles of dung. Schoolgirls in clean uniforms march together off to class, mothers carry babies and trail toddlers holding on to the edge of their saris, groups of Buddhist monks, heads shaven, brown bodies, and except for their right arms, totally covered in purple cloth.
I force myself to find my own group members and follow along behind them, clutching cameras, water bottles, sun hats. We hurry downside streets after our guide and find ourselves climbing steep cement steps.
An old man, front teeth missing, and skin so wrinkled and brown he looks like an apple sculpture smiles benignly at me. “Hanuman temple?” he asks.
“Yes. I am going to the temple.”
“Many monkeys there. You will see. Many monkeys. Long climb. Are you strong?”
“Oh yes, I am very strong,” I assure him.
His face breaks open with the light of another smile. He beams up at me, sending sparks of energy out of his eyes. “Blessings to you, child. Blessings. Hanuman bless you today.”
I continue up the steps, his warmth and unexpected grace filling me with happiness and expectancy. Soon the steps give way to an earth path winding its way through the pine trees and rhododendron, over boulders and fissures in the mountain, but always up, and seemingly always steeper. The younger pilgrims pass me by. The older ones sit down on rocks to catch their breath. I feel myself getting hotter, breath thinner, but I continue to walk steadily as the Sherpas in Nepal taught me years before. Walk from the hips, small steady steps, always forward evenly, smoothly, surely.
Halfway up we see a sadhu standing next to his makeshift hut. Seeing the pilgrims, he rings a small brass bell, letting us know we may stop to worship at his little shrine. We bow to the sacred image, offer a few coins on the ragged red cloth laid out in the dirt, and greet the old man. I notice that Doris is thrilled to take a photo of her first sadhu. She waves to me, proud of her “catch” and yells, “I got it! This will be good!”
Thirty minutes later I pass the housing of the caretakers of the temple eating their meal on the porch of their home. The building is old, crumbling at the edges, but its pillars and carvings are still beautiful. The women nod to me, the children smile or hide behind mom’s apron, little cheeks stuffed with food. We join our palms and bow our heads to each other whispering, “Namaste” the East’s common greeting, “I bow to the divinity in you.” The path continues up one more green peak. On its top I can just make out the white temple building.
We have 1.5 hours, to I stay in the temple. A little monkey sits in front of me as I meditate, and after a while one of the temple priests comes in and chases the baby monkey away from me and out the door.
Absolute devotion to the God within. We have heard all our lives that God dwells in our hearts. “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said. Why don’t we take it seriously? I pray to Lord Hanuman to increase my awareness of my divine center, to give strength to those who fight their own demons.
On the Way to Dharamshala
The next day we begin the drive at 6:00 A.M. up to Dharamshala. The eucalyptus trees stand in rows as we descend the hills from Shimla. In the dawning light the beauty of the place grabs at my heart. We shiver in our coats and shawls and look out at people gathered around little makeshift fires warming their hands, sharing the first cup of tea of the day. We pass a man washing his cow at the side of the road. So carefully he scrubs her hide, talking to her in gentle tones, as if he were bathing a child. I remember how revered the cow is in India, the mother who daily gives food and fuel.
Our first stop is next to a series of small waterfalls. The water chuckles at the sight of American women baring their bottoms behind the bushes and energizes us with its laughter. We are in fine form today. Our bus drives past charming fresh-painted houses, some with cars in the garage. There are slate roofs, irrigated fields, barns full of the grain being harvested. This is a wealthy area, obviously, and a wonderful relief from the poorer areas we have seen. At noon, we stop in this fertile farm area for a picnic lunch. We have sandwiches, apples, fried potato-onion, sweets. A little stream runs nearby and we climb the green hills for a better view (and of course a little privacy).
I spend time getting to know Michael, an interesting man from Chile. He is on pilgrimage, searching for an answer to his love life. Not sure if his wife and he love each other anymore, he needs time away from everything. After a few hours of talking, I point out a sadhu walking in a small town. “Where? Where?” he asks anxiously. “I’ve wanted to see them and meet some for years!” But by the time I get Michael to look out the window, the sadhu is gone. “How will I know one?” he asks. “Oh, you will know” I answer.
I keep trying to point sadhus out to him, but he is always sleeping, or talking, or not quick enough to look where I point. When we stopped in a town he walked away and missed the four that nodded to me as I gave pranams. I finally get him to see an old man walking thoughtfully carrying a trident and wearing faded ochre cloth. “Oh, I saw a sadhu!” he announces to the bus and tells me we should keep count. By the time we reach Dharamshala the score is Michael 3 and Theresa 28. “Why do they walk toward you and not me?” he asks in exasperation. “I can see them,” I reply. I will finally stop counting in Rishikesh, city of Rishis or sages, because, I tell Michael, every fifth person we will pass is wearing ochre.